The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
A talent for teaching
UConn great Marshall still having an impact on the game as an assistant coach in the NBA’s G League
In January of 2006, Donyell Marshall led LeBron James, his young teammate and a burgeoning international basketball icon, down the steps of the lower bowl of the Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee and toward a pair of seats behind the UConn bench.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were in town to play the Bucks the following night. Jim Calhoun and the UConn men's basketball team were playing their Big East opener against Marquette, and it was not going well. James, probably, was never happier to have gone straight from high school to the NBA.
“That was the game when [Steve] Novak had 41, and we were turning the ball over,” Marshall said this week. “Calhoun called a timeout and, who was the point guard? Marcus Williams. He turned the ball over and Calhoun called a timeout and Marcus had the ball and Calhoun's like, ‘Give me the ball! Give me the ball! You don't want it! You don't want the ball! Give me the ball!' So he took the ball and rolled it to the ref and LeBron turned to me and just goes, ‘You played for that crazy [bleep]?' I was like, ‘Yup.'”
Marshall was 32 at the time. Now he's 49, turning 50 in May, a father of six and about to become a grandfather.
James, who averaged a career-high 31.4 points in 200506, his third year in the NBA, was 21. Now he's 38 and, as of Tuesday, the NBA's all-time leading scorer. He has 38,390, three more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I just take pride in learning how hard his work ethic was back then, and how he was as student of the game,” Marshall said, reflecting on his two-plus seasons as a teammate of, and mentor to, James. “One thing today is a lot of guys don't know about the past. If you look at LeBron, he knows about Oscar Robertson, he knows about Wilt Chamberlain, he knows about all the guys who paved the way. So he did a great job of knowing the history of the game, which I don't think a lot of youths today do. That's one thing that impressed me.
“And after games he was always, ‘Can I get this? Can I get that? Can I get the film right away so I can see what I did wrong and see what we did
wrong?’ He was always trying to get better. Being only 21 years old and doing that was very impressive. It doesn’t surprise you, his greatness, when you saw that at a young age.”
Marshall left UConn for the NBA at 21 and stopped playing at 35, appearing in nearly 1,000 games for eight franchises over 15 seasons. The average NBA career is shy of five years. When a player triples that service time, he inevitably begins teaching — coaching, in a way — before he is done playing.
Marshall remains one of the most dominant players in UConn history, averaging 25.1 points as a junior and being named the 1994 Big East player of the year. He then became the first player to leave the Huskies’ early for the NBA, where he scored more than 10,000 points and grabbed more than 6,000 rebounds.
In 2004-05, Marshall became the first player in NBA history to make 12 3-pointers in a game. He averaged 11.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in his career, retired in 2009 and immediately took on the nomadic life of a coach.
After stints as an assistant for George Washington, the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s G League, Rider and Buffalo, Marshall in 2016 was hired at Central Connecticut, where he was head coach for five seasons. His contract at Central was not renewed after the 2020-21 season and Marshall is now in his second season as an assistant to coach Jordan Surenkamp with the G League’s Greensboro Swarm.
“I think one asset I bring, besides the X’s and O’s, is when we’re in meetings there are times when I’m able to tell [Surenkamp] what the players are actually feeling without me talking to the players,” said Marshall. “I’ll tell him, ‘I’m giving you a player’s perspective now.’ … Being an ex-player, I’ve also been able to go to the players and say, ‘This is a coach’s perspective,’ and they understand it. I think a lot of times when things could get out of hand and blow up, we’ve been able to put fires out. They would be just sparks instead of a flame because I was able to get both sides to understand where the other side was coming from.”
The Swarm are the Charlotte Hornets’ G League affiliate. He is the only coach on staff with NBA playing experience.
“He’s fantastic,” Surenkamp said last month, when the Swarm visited Bridgeport to play the Westchester Knicks. “I played Division III basketball and I never played a moment of professional basketball, so to have a player who’s done it at such a high level, he understands things that I would never be able to see as a head coach. He does a really good job of communicating with players. He does a fantastic job of reading the locker room.
“I may want to do something and he’ll be like, ‘Well, if I was in their shoes, this is how I would feel.’ So it allows me to trust him. He has such a good feel — not just from the coaching side, and he’s coached for 13-14 years now — but he’s also been on the players side. When someone who was the fourth pick in the NBA draft and played in the NBA for 15 years tells you it’s not good enough, guys respond. So it’s a good change of pace and a good voice for us to have.”
Marshall was 40-104 at Central after taking over for Howie Dickenman. The program showed promise during his second and third seasons, with a combined 25-38 record, but the Blue Devils were 943 the next two seasons.
There are challenges inherent to lowmajor college basketball. Budgets are low. Teams essentially begin each season with a handful of losses that are sure to come, some of them ugly, from road “guarantee games” against high-major programs that can bring over a hundred thousand dollars apiece.
Marshall, who was placed on leave after an altercation with an assistant coach during his second season, said he would like to be a head coach again.
“But I also want to become a head coach in the right situation,” he said. “I’m not saying that Central was not the right situation. But … it’s a hard job. If people don’t see that, and they can say what they want about me as a coach, but you look at Pat Sellers. He’s struggling. Does that mean Pat can’t coach? No, it doesn’t.”
Sellers, also a head coach for the first time, is 15-42 so far.
After his time at Central ended, Marshall took part in the NBA’s Assistant Coaches Program while in transition. He said valuable parts of that experience were learning about software available to NBA coaches, and trying to educate younger coaches around him.
Marshall had worked with Greensboro general manager Cam Twiss, who worked in basketball operations for the Red Claws while Marshall was a coach. When he reached out to Twiss for the Swarm’s coaches’ contact information to be added to the ACP database, Twiss suggested he call Surenkamp, noting that there were open positions on his staff.
Marshall was hired in October 2021. “The older you get, when you’re out of the league or out of coaching, sometimes it’s harder to get back,” Marshall said. “So it’s something I wanted to do, make sure I stayed to keep my name fresh. … This is considered the second best league in the world and there’s big, big talent here.”
Marshall has worked closely with former UConn players Isaiah Whaley, a Swarm rookie, and James Bouknight, who was selected by the Hornets with the 11th overall pick in the 2021 draft and has split time between the NBA and the G League.
Marshall understands difficult beginnings. He was traded to Golden State, for Tom Gugliotta, during his rookie season and began to thrive under P.J. Carlesimo, his fourth NBA coach, in 1997-98, averaging a career-high 15.4 points a game at age 24.
“One of the things I tell them is you’re in a business right away,” Marshall said of Whaley and Bouknight. “You look at some guys who think, ‘I was a top-10 pick, I should be playing right away and I should be starting,’ this and that. … Bouk knows when I coach him and I’m on him, it’s coming from love. It’s not necessarily just about being his coach. It’s also about love because of the UConn family. Me being here as your coach, I’m always going to root for you, I’m always here for you as a friend and as a brother before a coach. I think he really liked that. Even during games, when he gets down on himself, I’m able to approach him and he understands where it’s coming from.”